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Impassable Northwest Passage Open For First Time In History 528

An anonymous reader writes "The Northwest Passage, a normally ice-locked shortcut between Europe and Asia, is now passable for the first time in recorded history reports the European Space Agency. Leif Toudal Pedersen from the Danish National Space Centre said in the article: 'We have seen the ice-covered area drop to just around 3 million sq km which is about 1 million sq km less than the previous minima of 2005 and 2006. There has been a reduction of the ice cover over the last 10 years of about 100 000 sq km per year on average, so a drop of 1 million sq km in just one year is extreme.'"
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Impassable Northwest Passage Open For First Time In History

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  • by Dachannien ( 617929 ) on Saturday September 15, 2007 @07:06PM (#20619781)
    I'm sure the Northwest Passage Cruise Line vacation scam spams will begin soon.
  • Time to buy (Score:5, Funny)

    by downix ( 84795 ) on Saturday September 15, 2007 @07:14PM (#20619837) Homepage
    that prime waterfront property in Kansas....

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by CaroKann ( 795685 )
      Forget Kansas. There is prime waterfront property to buy on the north shore of Canada, Alaska, and Russia. In fact, I predict the melting of the artic ice will lead to a resource gold rush by the nations bordering the artic. It will change the whole geopolitical landscape as much as, if not more than, the rise of China's economy.
      • Re:Time to buy (Score:4, Interesting)

        by RockDoctor ( 15477 ) on Sunday September 16, 2007 @02:22PM (#20627245) Journal

        There is prime waterfront property to buy on the north shore of Canada, Alaska, and Russia. In fact, I predict the melting of the artic ice will lead to a resource gold rush by the nations bordering the artic

        Not in any great hurry ; in theory, the opening of the Arctic Ocean could make development and/ or extraction of minerals somewhat cheaper in the immediate coastal regions. But once you're more than a few tens of miles from the coast, then you're going to find that the costs of building rail lines or pipelines (depending on if you're talking about minerals or oil) gets up to the level where it's just as cheap in the long run to go overland with rail. And that's not going to be a quick option. Then again, building port facilities isn't quick either, particularly if you've got no port to bring the building materials for building your port.
  • Huh. (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday September 15, 2007 @07:15PM (#20619851)
    What could cause this?
    • Re:Huh. (Score:5, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward on Saturday September 15, 2007 @07:58PM (#20620267)
    • Years of Study: ~30 (Score:4, Informative)

      by WED Fan ( 911325 ) <akahige AT trashmail DOT net> on Saturday September 15, 2007 @08:18PM (#20620447) Homepage Journal
      Well, considering the years of study of the Northwest Passage are in the 30's, I'm sure someone will get a little hyperbolic with their rhetoric.
      • by rubycodez ( 864176 ) on Saturday September 15, 2007 @08:46PM (#20620677)
        Explorers looked for northwest passage from 1400s to 1900, mapping the artic area. in 1906 Roald Amunsen navigated the passage in an ice-fortified ship. Been done with other such ships since then.
      • by benhocking ( 724439 ) <benjaminhocking@ ... .com minus berry> on Saturday September 15, 2007 @08:49PM (#20620699) Homepage Journal

        Are you referring to the 1530s and Hernán Cortés? You're jumping the gun a little — it wasn't until 1576 that Martin Frobisher first tried to find the Northwest Passage. Of course, you could be referring to the 1630s as several attempts were made after this to find this passage that did not exist. Perhaps (but surely not) you're conflating the (prior lack of) existence of the Northwest Passage with the satellite record — which only stretches back about 30 years or so. Still, we know that the Northwest Passage has not been passable for well over 400 years.

        Now, sarcasm aside, I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that you don't agree with the scientific consensus on global warming. You no doubt extol the virtues of having an open mind and being skeptical. Has it occurred to you that the scientists are just as likely to have underestimated our impact as to overestimated it? In fact, evidence suggests that, being the conservative people that scientists are (not in the political sense, mind you), scientists have repeatedly underestimated our impacts. That doesn't mean that certain non-scientists aren't greatly exaggerating things, but I'm guessing (again) that it's the mainstream science [] view that you're taking umbrage with.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Belial6 ( 794905 )
          Now, I'm not saying that the passage has been open in the past, but unless there was permanent observation of the passage, we certainly cannot say it has never been open. You listed many dates, but where there people their EVERY year to see if the passage was open? We are in the situation today, that we can know exactly (probably down to the hour) that the passage became clear. If the passage was also clear in 1540 through 1545, we wouldn't know it.

          Obviously, this is something to watch, but by makin
          • He didn't sail it in 1905, he traversed it (through various means) between 1903 and 1905. It was not an open passage, however.

            And that the Vikings were sailing it sometime between 1200 and 1500 A.D.
            Now that's a new one! Do you mean they reached Newfoundland (not news, I think most historians believe this) or that there's "evidence" that they traversed the NW Passage to Asia? If the latter, I'd suggest you use your skeptics eye with respect to that "evidence".
            • by Snocone ( 158524 ) on Sunday September 16, 2007 @12:02PM (#20625989) Homepage
              Well, Ben, there's nothing that rises to the level of courtroom proof in the way of evidence excavated yet no, but the concept is not exactly new.

              Basically, the Haida band, who are the indigenous First Nation of Haida Gwaii (the archipelago which you non-PC foreigners are probably more familar with as "the Queen Charlotte Islands") display such a number of cultural similarities to the Norsemen that many reasonable people find it less of a stretch to presume that there was contact between them than to assume a remarkable cascade of coincidences. Let us take an example, boat design.

              ""Yakutat," or "Northern-style" canoes include a variety of design forms, including a characteristic curve and swelling near the bow. The prow of the canoe gracefully curves up from the water and can be adorned by elaborate carvings."

              Now, contrary to the learned discourse above, these are not actually characteristic of Haida design. There is one other culture that designed its ocean-going vessels with those same "characteristic" traits. Care to guess what that culture was?

              Those are just the first two images Google search came up with for each; if you look into it further, you'll find that the similarities are more striking than those two make apparent. Striking enough that when Haida/Tlingit take their canoes on cultural exchanges to Europe, they constantly get questions along the lines of "why did you make a longship out of a single tree trunk and paint it funny?", as Europeans just assume that the design is a conscious imitation of the Norse, not their own.

              Also, the Haida are physiologically distinct, rather dramatically so in fact, from every other American aboriginal culture; they are taller, whiter, grow facial hair, and produce significant quantities of brunettes and redheads.

              "Marchand also described the Haidas of Queen Charlotte Islands whom he visited in 1791. He found them not differing materially in stature from Europeans, better proportioned and better formed than the Sitkans and without the gloomy and wild look of the latter. Their color he found did not differ from that of Frenchmen, and several were less swarthy "than the inhabitants of our country places' (Edward L. Keithahn, MONUMENTS IN CEDAR: The Authentic Story of the Totem Pole, Bonanza books, New York 1971:19-23, emphases supplied)."

              This is not consistent with Haida mixing with Asian genetic pools, or any other Western North American genetic pool, or hell any other race bordering the entire Pacific for that matter. On the other hand, this is remarkably suggestive of significant admixture with a Scandinavian genetic pool, yes?

              Anyhoo, if you'd like to look further into the theory that the "Vinland" of the sagas is actually British Columbia, specifically the Cowichan Valley of Vancouver Island, here's a page for you:


              Actually living in British Columbia, I can attest to the plausibility of all the little details. The one that really struck me was his identification of the Oregon grape with the always-problematic 'grapes' of the sagas. As pointed out on this page, the presentation in the sagas does seem facially invalid:

              "As for the grapes in the Sagas, James Robert Enterline wrote in VIKING AMERICA (1972):
              In the Saga of Eirik the Red, after Thorhall the Hunter went off by himself, some writers have inferred that he found grapes and ate of them, becoming intoxicated, for he was discovered on a steep crag where:" he lay gazing up into the air with wide-open mouth and nostrils, scratching and pincing himself and muttering something ."
              The corresp
          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            Also, A quick google shows that Roald Amundsen sailed it in 1905? Or am I misunderstanding the story?

            You are misunderstanding, TFA you linked to said he spent two winters with dogsleds traversing the NW passage. Kinda the opposite meaning of what you implied. Or as you said, " making clearly untrue statements, fuel is given to those that are skeptical."

    • Re:Huh. (Score:4, Informative)

      by OriginalArlen ( 726444 ) on Sunday September 16, 2007 @08:57AM (#20624691)
      Hey, why not ask a climatologist [] (or six)? That's an excellent paper. If you've heard the "skeptic" canard along the lines of "but the temperature in teh historical proxy records starts rising before the CO2 starts to increase" -- which is completely correct - please take the trouble to read and understand the description of the albedo-flip feedback cycle. That's right, this means that things are much worse than the IPCC thinks.

      No, wait, he's a crank. He works for that hotbed of liberal tree-huggers, NASA!

      Here's the National Snow and Ice Data Center's latest map of Arctic sea-ice extent [] (w/e 10th September 2007), showing the average extent from 1980-2000 at this time of year. (context and the latest data will be here tomorrow. [].) This will be updating tomorrow (Monday) afternoon with the latest week's data. Normally sea-ice reaches it's minimum extent at the end of September, so we're not at the bottom of the 2007 season yet.

      Final one for the depressingly high number of skeptic loonies and ignoramuses who always come out of the wordwork on these stories: are you really saying that George Bush and Arnold Schwartzenegger are both suckers who have fallen for bad silence peddled by some sort of environmentalist illuminati? really? Cos even Dubya has now officially accepted the basic, uncontroversial amongst actual scientists, IPCC-version models are accurate (and this is anthropogenic warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions). You did know that didn't you?

      What do you know, that Dubya doesn't?

  • Roald Amundsen (Score:5, Informative)

    by imaginaryelf ( 862886 ) on Saturday September 15, 2007 @07:17PM (#20619863)
    The Northwest passage was first traversed in 1903 by that famous Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. This was no small feat given the technology available at the turn of the century. []
    • Thanks for reporting that untruth, Winston will fix that once he returns. - Ministry of Global Warming
      • Re:Winston Smith (Score:5, Interesting)

        by mce ( 509 ) on Saturday September 15, 2007 @09:02PM (#20620811) Homepage Journal
        Nobody claimed that Amundsen has not done it back then. The claim is that the passage now is practicable in one go, because the whole passage is open. Amundsen needed several years to make it all the way through in bits and pieces. And he couldn't have done it in any larger ship than the one he used, due to the water water being as shallow as 3 feet. Not exactly an economically viable solution.
    • Read that article carefully to see exactly how he "traversed" the Northwest Passage []. It wasn't open then, and hasn't been for at least 400 years (and probably an awful lot longer) — until now.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by falcon5768 ( 629591 )
        considering we have had many freezings and thawings have occurred in human history odds are it has been open quite a few times, there was just no one around there to record it.
        • by benhocking ( 724439 ) <benjaminhocking@ ... .com minus berry> on Saturday September 15, 2007 @10:04PM (#20621215) Homepage Journal
          If there was anyway to definitely prove it. We don't know anything about the entire passage prior to 400 years ago, but people have been interested in trying to find a way through continuously since then. If the passage in the last 400 years was ever as wide as it is now, it would have been easily spotted. Have you seen [] the satellite pictures? Here's a source [] that has a history for this summer.
        • Actually, there's a lot of evidence (ice core samples and such) that the arctic hasn't been warm enough for a passage to form for at least 100,000 years.

          The scary thing is that losing the polar ice cap has effects way beyond creating a new shipping route. All that ice reflects a lot of heat back into space. It's one of many effects (methane outgassing from melting Siberian tundra; carbon released when drought causes forests to burn) that create a positive feedback look in the global warming trend. In theory
  • ...shortcut between Europe and Asia...

    A shortcut between Europe and Asia? How long will this shortcut reduce the time it takes to cross between these neighboring continents?

    Yes, yes, I know, there is a great historical importance to the Northwest Passage, as the pursuit of it led to Western explorers crossing the Atlantic (more frequently than the random exile), but a bit of specificity here could go a long way - like, perhaps, a shortcut between western Europe and southeast Asia (although, I'd think th

    • Re:Poorly worded (Score:5, Insightful)

      by MosesJones ( 55544 ) on Saturday September 15, 2007 @07:31PM (#20620005) Homepage
      Seriously, you have noticed that the world isn't flat haven't you? When planes fly they go north because that creates the shortest route (the grand circle) hence the reason that when flying to Asia the planes often go from Europe straight over the north pole. In terms of mileage this is a massive change (think multiples not percentages) over the existing routes and is the reason why the EU and US are already pushing for it to be an international (rather than Canadian) trade route.

      So yes it looks similar on Google maps, but it looks completely different on Google Earth.

      • Re:Poorly worded (Score:5, Interesting)

        by gEvil (beta) ( 945888 ) on Saturday September 15, 2007 @08:21PM (#20620457)
        So yes it looks similar on Google maps, but it looks completely different on Google Earth.

        Try Bucky Fuller's Dymaxion map [] for an interesting view of the world...
      • Re:Poorly worded (Score:5, Insightful)

        by p0tat03 ( 985078 ) on Saturday September 15, 2007 @09:05PM (#20620827)

        ... massive change (think multiples not percentages) over the existing routes and is the reason why the EU and US are already pushing for it to be an international (rather than Canadian) trade route.

        And why should Canada's sovereign territory being pieced apart? If it suddenly became globally advantageous to cross shipments through most of the US, the EU and the rest of the world would be perfectly justified in making it international territory as well?

        You people can just fly/ship your people/things with our blessings (and taxes), the land and airspace belongs to us.

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by c6gunner ( 950153 )
          I tried to moderate your comment "funny" but my mod points seemes to have disappeared between the time I loaded this article, and the time I hit "moderate".

          Anyway: the Canadian claim on the arctic territories was never really accepted by most nations. It was simply never disputed because nobody gave a about who owned a bunch of frozen islands in the far north. Now that the ice is melting, EVERYONE is starting to care, and we Canadians, thanks to years of neglect, don't have any way of enforcing our
    • Europe and Africa makes heavy use of Panama canal for items coming from eastern china, russia. Now, they can send it over America/Canada and not have to pay the price, in particular, the canal currently only allows small ships through it.
  • by Tablizer ( 95088 ) on Saturday September 15, 2007 @07:24PM (#20619945) Journal
    Where is Linux gonna get a new mascot when their home is gone?

    -1 wrong pole

  • whoa. (Score:3, Funny)

    by apodyopsis ( 1048476 ) on Saturday September 15, 2007 @07:25PM (#20619955)
    all this global warming, freak weather and now the northwest passage is open? I'm losing my faith in coincidences here...
    • Re:whoa. (Score:5, Insightful)

      by The Living Fractal ( 162153 ) <> on Saturday September 15, 2007 @09:34PM (#20621005) Homepage
      What would be coincidental about it? Yes, the world is getting warmer. Everyone agrees with that basic statement. Now tell me _why_ it's because of Mankind. We already have geological proof that the world gets hotter and colder in cycles and we are (geologically speaking) getting out of an ice age. And I want hard numbers, like "23% of global warming compared to the mean of the last decade is due to CO2 emissions from the following nations" etc.

      • Re:whoa. (Score:4, Insightful)

        by Kjella ( 173770 ) on Saturday September 15, 2007 @10:59PM (#20621569) Homepage
        Now tell me _why_ it's because of Mankind. We already have geological proof that the world gets hotter and colder in cycles and we are (geologically speaking) getting out of an ice age.

        Smoothness. Just take a look at the curves, and you'll see lots of cycles, big and small but these are changes that happen over thousands (and in some cases, millions) of years. What we see today is much bigger than "the little ice age" and the yearly variations, it goes straight up and coincides with our industrialization and CO2 emissions. Just because our ability to accurately predict say a storm center months in advance is poor, we know what normal variation is and this isn't it. You seem to want proof on the level of "beyond any reasonable doubt". Personally I think those that are willing to risk destroying the planet on the off chance that "it might not be us" are should err on the side of caution, not suicidalness. YMMV.
  • Maybe, maybe not (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Jerry ( 6400 ) on Saturday September 15, 2007 @07:30PM (#20619993) []

    "Former submarine commander Gavin Menzies in his book 1421: The Year China Discovered the World claims that several parts of Zheng's fleet explored virtually the entire globe, discovering West Africa, North and South America, Greenland, Iceland, Antarctica and Australia (except visiting Europe). Menzies also claimed that Zheng's wooden fleet passed the Arctic Ocean. However none of the citations in 1421 are from Chinese sources and scholars in China do not share Menzies's assertions."
  • by Anonymous Coward
    See [] for the details.
    Swings and roundabouts.
    • by DrSkwid ( 118965 ) on Saturday September 15, 2007 @07:48PM (#20620189) Homepage Journal
      That posting is the interesting, I useful fact to carry around.
      I'm still a global warming sceptic. I'm all for reducing carbon emissions and the like. I'm just not totally convinved the weather patterns and carbon emissions are intertwined as some of the figures look.

      Correlation is not causation.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        >Correlation is not causation.

        Correct. Longwave absorption is causation.

        We know from the lab that CO2 absorbs certain wavelengths, we know from thermodynamics that the earth reradiates at those wavelengths, and we know from satellite measurements that less energy is reaching space from the surface at those wavelengths.

        We also know what solar output [] has been doing, for the last ~30 years quite precisely.
    • Hotter summers, cooler winters = climate change

      Seriously, the Antartic is cooler because southern hemisphere areas over the tropics are hotter than usual, so cooler air masses from Antartic can't go trough them and accumulate down south.
  • ...just so I can tell my grandkids (ok since this is slashdot, someone else's grandkids): "Yep, I was there. Just miles and miles of ice as far as the eye can see, all floating on water. 'course it's gone now, all melted away because of global warming - I hear the US just recently acknowledged it might be a possibility too."
  • Sovreignity rights (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Aeron65432 ( 805385 ) <agiamba@gma i l .com> on Saturday September 15, 2007 @07:43PM (#20620133) Homepage
    Let the battle begin......Canada has already asserted complete rights to the passage, Russia and the United States want it to be international waters. It matters because this passage is incredibly lucrative for the months of the year it's open.
    • No, not complete rights over the whole passage; just to parts of the passage that extend into their navigable waterways. In some portions the only passable portions may be in their waterways, but not the whole passage in it's entirety. Anyway, over time, as more ice recedes, soon the entire passage will be navigable.

      However, no one should be surprised about all this... It's been slowly becoming easier to make the passage over time. []
    • by quacking duck ( 607555 ) on Saturday September 15, 2007 @08:41PM (#20620637)
      It has the potential to be incredibly lucrative, yes.

      Most of the passage indisputably passes between islands all internationally recognized as Canadian. Territorial waters [] is defined as 12 nautical miles (22 km) from the land, and a quick check using Google Earth shows most of these islands are less than 44 km apart at their closest points. Once you're in the Beaufort Sea, then yeah you're in international waters.

      Unfortunately the US and European countries don't have many comparably close-lying islands for comparison, but it would be like claiming the Shelikof Strait between Alaska and Kodiak Island were international waters.

      The US and Europe want the passage "international" for the convenience and cost savings, which is understandable. But their wanting to make it international also means they want to strip Canada of its obligation to protect its environment--witness the callous disregard of the effects of dumping bilge oil/water [] just last year.

      Obviously, Canada currently is in no position to enforce its sovereignty in the north due to its underfunded military, but that is a separate issue. The Arctic and Antarctic areas are one of the last areas on earth relatively unspoiled by human contamination, and it disgusts me that those largely responsible for screwing up the rest of the world, now want to finish the job.
  • I can't hear you. La la la. Are you from some foreign country because I can't understand what you are saying.

    PS. The climate is not changing. Please go about your business people.

  • ... naming it "The Northwest Passage" was incredible foresight?
  • To turn your virgin children into islamofascists. I'm sure I saw this on Fox. No no no a thousand times no. If Global Warming were caused by man God would have given us gills.

Money can't buy love, but it improves your bargaining position. -- Christopher Marlowe